That day they were all gone to an event at the royal castle: the Minister, the Lady and their children were guests. And where the family went so did Maxim and most of the guards. She’d taken to calling the Captain Maxim in her head. Not that he had given her any reason to think that she had the right to but she must be honest with herself. She liked the man for all this gruff exterior and abrupt manners. For all that he was a soldier who didn’t wear his feelings on his sleeve – and very rarely smiled – he was kind to her. And he was handsome in a way that made her insides turn to liquid; his green eyes belied the sternness that mostly reflected there. Someone who smiled so little shouldn’t have green eyes: dark yes. Not the green that she had learned as a child, the green one found in the forest when it basked in the bright sunlight. Well today he wasn’t here so she mustn’t lose focus thinking of him.
Free of her chores Pearl had given her some paper and ink to write to her parents. Her last letter was at least two months old. When she was finished the Head of staff had allowed her to go to the forest; she had told Maxim – the name really rolled nicely on her tongue, well in her head rather – that she would do it in case they returned early and she hadn’t. The forest lay within the boundaries of the Minister’s domain. She wasn’t to cross the river though: there actually was an electrical wire going through to ensure no slaves attempted to flee. She doubted any of the slaves in the Minister’s household would want to escape. She sometimes felt guilty that she lived better than when she was free; but that wasn’t the reason she wasn’t all worried anymore about having to stay more. She hadn’t antagonized Gregory since the day she was whipped. But the young man had changed since then; he’d been more focused in his lessons, now attended at all times by Maxim. Again that name. And he’d been nicer. Not in any way that people could really see; but he had sent the healer to her quarter to make sure that her back was mending properly. The young man hadn’t wanted to tell who sent him until she threatened to ask the minister, which was cruel. So they had come to a tacit agreement in a way. And now she must ascertain the young people’s improvement. And for that she needed to create the real sense of a hunt something she hadn’t done for them, nor had she had the opportunity to feel it since she arrived here. They hadn’t let her bring them to the forest yet. Not that winter was the best time to come anyway but still, she had only been here with Maxim. Of course he had shown her the entire wood, but in his brusque and efficient manner. He was seeing this as a battleground, which wasn’t entirely wrong but also not right for a hunter. She needed to discover the forest as one of its inhabitants. That was the hunter’s way. And to do that she needed solitude, which she was blessedly offered today. So she spent some time trying to become one with nature… as her father would say. It wasn’t so much that as listening to the forest and recognizing its natural sounds, the disturbance in the wood and what created them. That was why she was made a master hunter within five years of registering with the guild; she was the best at it and not one of them could catch her unawares.
There were trails to be found in the forest. The domain was rich: rabbits, quails, pheasants and foxes lived there. And if she recognized it – as she should – stags and does. They were rare in the Clermont district. And now the does were carrying if the males had done their job during the fall. She would leave the herds alone for the time being. The small game would do. She followed the path a fox had traced for her and was closing in on it when suddenly she heard the alarms. Like the prey she had chased and had now become she looked this way and that trying to find a place to hide. Except that suddenly the wailing changed and something caught her breath. Her hand started pulsing no vibrating. She turned her palm to notice the quartz was glowing as if it were alive. Even the metallic structure that held it seemed to expand. No it wasn’t possible; it was a piece of scrap metal. And yet the arms of the star reached beyond her hand and up to her elbow. She screamed at the top of her lungs overcome by a fear unlike anything she’d experienced since that boar charged at her all these years ago. She’d only survived because she was slim and the tusk had only grazed her as the beast literally propelled her ten feet away. And her father and two other hunters were there and brought down the enraged animal before it trampled her. Only right now a machine was swallowing her and no one was anywhere near enough to do anything about it.
Suddenly she realized the screaming was resounding inside something; there was a helmet around her face. And abruptly she took flight; not that she wanted to or consciously did it but it seemed they were wings attached to the machine that she had now become. And whether she willed it or not she was flying towards the lightning. What was happening? What did that mean? There were other machines in the skies already; they looked like people only just in some sort of armour and with guns and swords – though nothing like the one Maxim was teaching her with – and they all seem to shine in colourful lights. Something flew right past her and she gasped: planes. And they were firing at her. Giant boars trying trample her; she couldn’t have said she did anything that followed with deliberately but rather survival instinct kicked in. Somehow though she wasn’t scared of the flying; it seemed to be something she was born to do. It came naturally. Or maybe it was only because this appeared to be just a giant hunt. She needed a bow though. And it seemed one grew out of the quartz still shining on her hand. It was all she could do not to let it go in surprise. But she held on and started firing arrows burning with the same gemstone glow towards the planes. She aimed at what seemed to be the head of the planes; they really looked like giant birds though their wings weren’t nearly as flexible. And they definitely weren’t big enough to transport passengers; one or two people at the most could sit in them. Those were her last conscious thoughts before the first one fell and exploded in mid air.
Afterwards she must have let her instincts completely take over because she would barely remember anything. It was like being in the forest and listening to the sounds that were natural to the skies and those that weren’t. Only now not much seemed to belong; the sounds coming from left and right were menacing and she was flying to avoid fire coming from giant machine guns attached to the planes. At some point one of the flying people stopped near her and spoke but she couldn’t hear; in her peripheral vision she noticed something. She propelled herself against him forcing the both of them out of the trajectory of gunfire. Turning on herself she knocked the arrow and released it into the head of the plane, which burst into flames. They were swarming the skies like a murder of ravens. For every one that fell it seemed more came until they didn’t and flew away and the skies became silent again. Once it did the wings on her back shuddered and suddenly panicking she wondered how she would return to the domain. She’d no idea where to go. The machine that had become her seemed to and flew her back to the domain though not quite where she’d been when the sirens started. How long had it been?
Standing on the ground she felt her head being released first and shoulders until just the star in her hand remained. Except that it was no longer a piece of metal held at her wrist and finger by a chain but rather it seemed to have become part of her hand. She tried to pull it out in vain. It seemed to be encrusted in her palm. She took the knife that was at her belt and attempted to slide it between the metal and the skin. She only managed to cut herself deeply but the thing wouldn’t budge despite the heavy bleeding. She turned around taking in her surroundings; she wasn’t certain of where in the forest she was but she shouldn’t have any issues finding her way back. They would be able to remove the star at the manor. Or would they? Slowly and mindful of where she walked she found a path to return to the house. It quickly became obvious that the attack had left some scars as some trees were burnt or fallen. Seen from this close and having experienced it she wondered how she could have believed that this was caused by lightning; it was much more final than what a thunderstorm could do. Animals could escape lightning; they felt it coming, hid from it.
There was no hiding from what had happened as the carcass of a deer that she passed by while she made her way back to the house proved it. She had to stop by a gravid doe, which legs were broken but that still lived. It would have been a miracle if the animal had had any chance to survive, which it didn’t. And she wasn’t even sure that the meat would be safe to eat, but she couldn’t let it suffer. Again she grabbed her knife this time to end the beast’s suffering. One plunge into the animal’s neck and it became still. It disgusted her to leave the corpse to rot but what else could she do? When she stood again she felt dizzy; what had happened suddenly crashed against her. Why had she flown? What did that mean? How did she know what to do? How was she alive? She fell on her knees in the pool of blood that the doe had lost. And she was sick; for a long time she barely moved, her stomach roiling as the smells and blurred images of that fight overwhelmed her mind. Acrid metal and burning flesh… She wanted to sleep but knew she couldn’t.
She sensed the wood stirring after a time; someone – a great many of them in fact – were disturbing the forest, stomping gracelessly and quite noisily between the trees scaring animals out of the refuges they had found during the attack. She guessed who it was but she couldn’t move to make her way towards them. Her head was still throbbing and she felt weak. She didn’t even have the strength to let them know of her position. It took them some time to actually be anywhere near where she sat and she almost expected them to stumble upon before they realized they had. It made her smile.
“Kiaya!” The voice she had wanted to hear even before the alarm eventually called.
“Here.” She breathed uselessly. Her voice was raw, her throat hurt; she did scream. Trying to shake the lethargy that seemed to control her, she rubbed her face. A foolish idea all in all as she only spread blood all over her visage and actually scratched her cheek with the daft star that she’d failed to remove from her hand.
“Captain, she’s here.” Gregory had come! It surprised a short laugh out of her lips. “It wasn’t easy to find you. How did you manage to get here without leaving tracks?”
“You found tracks through this mess?” He was trying to pull her up.
“The Captain did.”
“Gregory!” The young man froze. “Don’t make her stand. Not yet.”
“I’m fine sir.” She said.
“Your entire face is covered in blood and I’m sure it’s not just the doe’s.”
“No. But…” One of his hands held her chin while he checked her head with his other. “I didn’t hit my head.” Well she didn’t think she did.
“I’ll be the judge of that. Look at me.” She met his gaze and caught her breath. She saw relief there and the remnants of fear; had he been afraid for her? She smiled weakly. “You’re dizzy.” It was not a question.
“A little.” He raised an eyebrow. “I was sick.” She was stating the obvious. His stare told her as much. He made her follow his finger with her eyes to ensure she could but it made her extremely nauseous. She caught his hand in hers weakly.
“You’re not walking.” He said curtly.
“I can walk.” She retorted knowing perfectly well that she couldn’t.
“Really? Try and stand.” Great! She wasn’t even sure she could do that. She reached behind leaning on the ground first bringing her knees underneath her that she could kneel. Someone moved beside her and a hand touched her arm. “Don’t help her Mister Gregory. She must show me she can.” Gregory stepped back. It probably was best as she might be sick all over again. She bended one knee resting it against her chest and weighed on it trying to stand. But she’d only risen a few inches when she went completely blind and the sounds of the world receded as queasiness washed over her once more. She couldn’t stand; she’d faint if she did. “So?” He asked relentlessly his voice sounding muffled as if coming through a heavy wall of cotton.
“You’re right. I can’t.” She breathed trying not to retch again. “Can’t see.”
“Raise your arms if you can.” It was an order and yet there was something different in it. She tried. Her arms felt extremely heavy but she managed; he caught her hands in his and brought them around his neck before gathering her in his arms and forcing her to rest her head against his shoulder. It wasn’t particularly comfortable but better than attempting to stand. “Gregory, can you lead us back to the path?”
“Good. Kiaya don’t fall asleep.” That’d be hard because now that she knew herself safe she very much wished she could close her eyes and sleep. He spoke some other words she barely heard but then something cold rested against her forehead and then dabbed her face. Water. Some of the sounds came back.
“It’s an order girl. Where were you? What were you doing here?”
“I told you… I…”
“Tell me again.”
“I wanted to do a reckon of the forest to prepare a proper hunt for Mister Gregory and the Misses. I was tracking a fox… the sirens started. I… I’m not sure. There was fire everywhere. And I don’t know… I followed my instincts. I was confused. It felt as if they were everywhere. And then here the trees and dead deer and the doe.”
“You don’t make any sense Kiaya. Are you certain you didn’t hit your head?” He sounded worried. Did he really care? Or was she imagining this?
“I don’t think so. Can’t remember. I found trails though. Good for practice.”
“Let’s not think of this yet.”
“How long?” She was trying so hard but she felt herself go. She knew she wouldn’t keep herself awake; it was the same thing when the boar gored her. “I can’t. Maxim.” She breathed his name; if she didn’t wake up it wouldn’t matter. And she was scared.
“Kiaya don’t you fall asleep. Damn it girl.” But she couldn’t help it. She tried to answer but no sound came out. Darkness engulfed her.
They said she’d gone in and out of consciousness for almost ten days. She vaguely remembered being awake and begging the healer not to say anything about the iron star but she wasn’t certain.
“The Master and the Captain were really worried about you.” Felis said as she slowly and gently fed her some soup. “Why were you in the forest?”
“Felis leave the girl alone,” Pearl said sternly. They were still speaking in low tones aware of the headache that continued to plague her. “She was allowed to go.”
When Romain came in the two women remained in the corner silent and ready to help. She was sitting up while he made her move her neck slowly this way and that. As Maxim did in the wood he instructed her to follow his finger with her eyes. It remained painful though it didn’t make her nauseous at least not as much.
“I’m not sure what happened to you Kiaya but you’re lucky. You had some internal bleeding and heavy bruising as if you’d been ejected from a vehicle going full speed. I’m impressed you didn’t break any limbs. I don’t think you hit your head per se but the violence of the shock did damage it slightly. There is a scar too, an old one. I couldn’t access your medical files; did you hit your head in the past?”
“When I was 10.”
“Was there a blast near you that projected you in any way during the attack?”
She couldn’t tell him she’d been flying and there were blasts all around her; she hadn’t felt as if any had impacted her though. But who knew?
“There were but I can’t remember being hit or anything.”
“You may have lost consciousness and not realised it.”
“No. I know I was awake until the Captain found me. But it’s all very blurred.”
“Shock will do that sometimes. Again you’re lucky.”
“I seem to be that.” She was lucky to have survived that boar, lucky to have her bond bought by a man who cared about his servants and lucky again.
“You still need some rest.”
“I can’t be idle sir.”
“It’s not being idle when you must heal child. I can have books brought in to keep you occupied. Oh the Captain gave me this before he left.”
He handed her an envelope; it was from Clermont and yet it held no joy for now.
“What do you mean he left? I thought he served the Minister only.”
“Oh he’s not left the Minister’s service. He just went to one of the districts for a few days to fulfil some mission. He should be back in a week or so.”
“I see. Thank you for the letter. And I’d love books. Please.”
“I need you to be patient Kiaya. I know you will want to go out hunting or sword fighting as soon as you can walk a few steps in the room. Don’t. I’m sure you’d rather not be tied up to your bed.”
“Good. I’ve given your medication to Pearl. She’ll ensure you take it morning and night. If you suffer from a headache that bothers you more than the one you have now, I need you to tell them to call for me. Will you do that?” She nodded. “I think the Minister and the Captain would be rather wroth with me if you didn’t get better.”
“I don’t want to cause trouble sir.”
“I know you don’t.” He laid a hand on her forehead before he stood and left after asking Pearl to ensure she didn’t develop a fever. Was she in such a bad state?
She opened the envelope that he had given her. She recognized Angie’s lovely writing. Her parents were glad to hear she was working for the Minister. It was a worthy way to pay the debt. Kira was getting more beautiful by the day and though only eight now men had approached her mother for a match. Her father had refused so far deeming it way too early for this kind of thing and wouldn’t hear of betrothal nonsense. Good! Kira was too young to think of getting married. Khiran had started training with another Master. Her brother wanted her to know that Master Warren wasn’t as cool a teacher as she was. The twins were getting bigger and eating more. They were able to buy a stove with the money they’d received from the purchase of her bond as well as gloves and boots for winter. They were asking after her and her duties. Angie had added a couple of lines to tell her that she missed her at the library and their special moments. She blushed. By the time she finished reading she was tired though; it required concentration and she obviously still struggled with it. Pearl forced her to lie down again and within moments she fell asleep.
She was like that for another couple of days; she did take a few steps in the room but as much as she itched to get outside she obeyed the healer’s advice. During these two days she didn’t have visits: the Master didn’t come, nor the lady or the children. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it; was she so unimportant? Not that it mattered really, since the only person she would have wanted to see wasn’t in the house right now. On the fourth day the Minister came as she was sitting down for a light lunch. Pearl and Felis were going to walk with her outside so that she could get back on her feet and reform her leg muscles. In so little time she’d lost a lot of muscular mass.
“Stay seated Kiaya,” he said as she made to stand, “Romain says you need rest still. Pearl, Felis give us a moment please.” They left the room. “I just need you to tell me what happened to you. No one has been able to understand how they found you at least one mile away from where your tracks disappeared.”
She didn’t want to lie but she didn’t know how to explain.
“I don’t understand what happened.” The images were rushing back bringing with them the sense of surrealism and violence that shook her in the forest. She had to hold onto the table feeling suddenly as if she were losing her sense of direction. He took her arm supporting her.
“All right, don’t worry.”
“I’m sorry sir.”
“Don’t be. We’ll talk about it some other time. You were badly hurt.”
“Is there no hospital in the capital sir?”
“Yes but Romain advised against transporting you.” That she felt wasn’t the complete truth but she didn’t have the strength to ask. “Have your food. And rest.”
He stood to leave.
“Romain said you sent the Captain to the district. It’s not on my account I hope.”
“I asked him to do something for me.” He replied smiling. “And the king required a report. I trust him more than anyone else. He’ll be back soon.”
She ended up not walking outside before another day the discussion with the Master having left her shaken. Pearl and Felis walked on either side of her to make sure she didn’t fall or overexert herself. She wasn’t inclined to do it; as annoying as it was she was fully aware that her body wouldn’t handle too much. Being outside though allowed her to see that Maxim hadn’t come back yet. She was only capable of a crossing a dozen of meters that day. But the next she managed more and the one after she remained outside for almost an hour. The Minister’s children joined her for a little while with their mother. The girls spoke about a reception that would happen soon but they went way too fast for her to follow. Surprisingly it was Gregory who told them to slow down and take time. It seemed he had changed a lot. He explained that there would be a reception at the manor a few days from now with most of the Capital’s nobility coming. There were talks that some of the King’s family might come, which caused his sister’s excitement. And obviously Felis and Pearl were also electrified by the news royals could be among the guests. She caught the Lady’s expression and knew that she at least wasn’t really expecting any of the royal family to come and happy that they wouldn’t. Kiaya couldn’t even begin to imagine what sort of logistics would be required if they actually showed up.
“Children…” The Minister’s voice called from behind her. “You mustn’t overtax her. She’s supposed to rest.” The Lady tensed slightly.
“I’m alright my Lord.” She smiled.
“You told Maxim you were in the forest to prepare a hunt for us,” Gregory said ignoring his father. “Do you think we’re ready?”
“As I explained to… the Captain, a proper hunt is the only way to see whether you are or not.”
“When are we doing it?” Meryl asked.
The Minister opened his mouth but she was the one who answered.
“Not yet Miss Meryl. I can barely walk a hundred meters outside without feeling exhausted. You have to give me a few weeks. The weather will be better. A little warmer so more possible preys to catch.”
“We’ll walk with you everyday. You need to get better fast. It’d be great if you could dance at the party,” Amelia said. She wouldn’t go farther today for sure. She smiled.
“Oh Miss Amelia, I can’t dance.” The look of utter shock on the girl’s face made her think of Kira. “And I don’t belong in a party anyway.” The girl pouted.
“And dancing is probably not advised right now. I’m sure Romain would forbid it.” Lady Laila added somewhat coldly.
“He probably would my Lady.” She breathed.
“Kiaya,” Pearl said looking at her sternly. “You’re white as a parchment child. You know the healer told you not to…”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
So that was it for the day; she slept for most of what was left of it. But the next day was better and the day after that. She had finally managed to walk by herself from the house to the training courtyard and back without stopping to breathe when she heard one of the guards say that Maxim had returned and was in the Minister’s study giving him a full report. She held onto Pearl to hide the giddiness she felt. Only she didn’t see him that day as he remained with the Minister until after she’d gone to bed.
She had remained out of sight for most of the day, dispensed of helping to prepare the house for the party. She had taken a book and gone outside in the farthest part of the gardens and she was sitting in the grass to read. It was close enough that she could return to the house by herself though Pearl had walked with her to be certain she was fine and carried a small basket of food and water. The head of staff had ordered her to wait until someone came to fetch her; it would most probably one of the guards, as most of the servants and slaves would be expected to help waiting on the guests. So she didn’t worry that nobody had arrived when the sun started to disappear behind the mountains. Everyone was busy. Nor was she much concerned when she heard the steps coming towards her. Except that she hadn’t expected the guard to be him: he had seemed to try and avoid her in the week since he returned. Never had he come to see her nor was he there the two mornings she went down to the courtyard to continue her training. Not that she was in shape to hold a sword let alone fight with it but she hoped to see him. Now he was here and she was caught unawares. And she was reminded of the fact that she’d called him by his name just before she fainted in the forest and the memory made her blush. She scrambled to stand up.
“So I see that you’re better girl.” He said extremely formally. That hurt. She hadn’t expected that. And yet what else?
“Yes Captain. Not perfect. Definitely not. But better.”
“Good.” He turned around. “Let’s go. The guests have arrived so we have to enter through the side door. Pearl had completely forgotten about you until I asked.”
“It was crazy in the kitchen today sir. She was kind to walk with me here.”
“Still. You’re her charge. Did you have enough food or are you hungry?”
“I’m fine.” He faced her once more with a hard look. “A little hungry. But not much.”
”You need to eat; you don’t look healthy enough yet. Lost a lot of muscle.”
“I know sir. That’s why I came in the morning to train.” His eyes betrayed nothing. “But you weren’t there.”
“So I wasn’t. I had other things that required my attention.”
“I understand,” she answered. “I’m sorry I assumed…” she choked tears caught in her throat. Did he have to make it this difficult? Fine he didn’t like her. He didn’t need to be so nasty about it. She looked down trying to hide the tears that filled her eyes. Only he wouldn’t let her; placing his second finger under her chin he made her look up as his thumb gathered some of the tears away from her cheeks.
“You scared the living hell out of me Kiaya. I thought you’d die.” He said in a whisper before his mouth pressed hers and the world around her dissolved.
She was leaning against his body; like that morning in the courtyard when he’d shown her how to handle the sword, it felt their bodies matched together. And his lips tasted sweet, sweeter than the man ever acted. She reached around his neck when he stepped back. She was breathless… So was he. Why had he stopped? He straightened and suddenly became formal again.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have.”
“I told you before the Master doesn’t accept disobedience. You would be in trouble. You know that.” That hurt.
“You’re not his son.”
“Kiaya, I’m… You must remain untouched; you’re worth…” That hurt even deeper.
“I’m not goods to be sold. I have a debt to pay that doesn’t make me an animal.”
“No. Never that. I didn’t mean…”
He reached for her but she slapped his hand away.
“Yes you did.”
He almost did it, almost shook his head. But he wasn’t that man; he didn’t show feelings, not like that. But he had kissed her. He wanted her; she had felt it. She may be untouched but she wasn’t uneducated in this.
“Let me walk with you to the kitchen. You need to eat.”
She could have slapped him. Instead she started walking in silence. They were making their way through the gardens careful to stand a few feet away from each other when they heard it.
“I need you to sell Kiaya’s bond Jayce.”
“Why Laila? She’s good for the children. They’ve learned a lot. Some humility too.”
“I see how you look at her. Am I no longer enough? Jayce! You’re old enough to be her father.” The Master paused for a moment and sighed.
“That love is because I believe I am.”
Kiaya stopped dead in her tracks. She would have screamed but Maxim’s hand was on her mouth before she could make a sound. Her heart was beating extremely fast the feeling of his skin on hers burning. She couldn’t have heard correctly. Struggling to breathe but incapable of fighting the man who held her, she strained her ears to listen. It was wrong to be eavesdropping but they couldn’t move. They would be heard. And they were talking about her.
“How?” Lady Laila’s voice didn’t betray any anger maybe sadness. “Why?”
“You remember what I told you on our wedding night?”
“The promise I made Serenity.”
“Jayce it’s not possible. She is younger than Gregory.”
“She isn’t. But she doesn’t know.”
“So Serenity was pregnant with your child? I thought…”
“I know. She didn’t want to endanger my position. But you know whom she was intended to marry. She was afraid her father would kill the baby. She called me the night she gave birth. She asked me to ensure her daughter was protected.”
“But you were leaving for the outer regions.”
“Yes. And that’s where I brought the girl. My guide was a young hunter but newly registered with the guild. He and his wife were looking to move from the Strasbourg district. It was too close to the border; there had been skirmishes with the Prussians already. The man had family in Clermont. I gave them money to move in exchange for taking the girl as their own. You know the workers must declare their pregnancy. They couldn’t have her right away; so the woman registered she was expecting and then they left. They must have declared the child born nine months later. I wonder how they survived…”
“How did you know it was the same girl at the Plaza?”
“Have you looked at her hair Laila? Have you seen such a shade of red in any family but the royals? She was a registered hunter from Clermont. I suspected. And when I made her look at me the first time… she’s got my eyes. How could I not know? Even you said that she wasn’t a slave at heart. How could she be?”
“So you took her in for her own protection. If anyone recognized that particular shade of red…”
“No one knows what happened to Serenity’s ‘bastard child’. And since she retired to one of the convents in Brittany nobody can talk to her. They don’t know. But rumours can destroy anyone and if she’d been at the bath house too many people would have seen her who knew Serenity.”
“Will you tell her?”
“To what purpose Laila? She has a family whom she loves, a simple life. Why burden her with the knowledge that she’s not lived the life she was meant to have?”
There was a pause that the lady finally broke.
“Will you forgive me?”
“For thinking the worst?”
“I hope you forgive me. I should have told you as soon as I brought her here. But I was so afraid Gregory might try something stupid. She’s his half-sister.”
“Well whatever it was you told her about sharing his bed she took very seriously. But I think she cares much for Maxim.”
She felt him tense and she too; was she so easy to read?
“I noticed. He cares for her too. More than he would ever admit – particularly to me, even less to her. Maybe I should recant my orders to them. It may be what’s best.”
“No it’s not. Jayce. She’s a royal. They may not know it but someday it will come out. Am I right to assume she was the additional the news were talking about?”
“I don’t know. I can’t see how. But she doesn’t remember much of the day.”
“Who knows?” She paused. “We’ll deal with it later. Let’s go back inside. The guests will wonder at our absence.”
Once they were out of earshot Maxim let go of her; she couldn’t respire. What did that all mean? She turned to face the man who’d held her. She could tell he too was shocked but she didn’t give him a chance.
“Did you know?” She breathed. She knew he did; he chose his words so carefully that night in the bunker – was it only six months before – “his and Lady Laila’s children”.
“Not all of it. I knew you were his daughter. He told me. But I thought it was an adventure with a worker. I had no idea you were royal. I wouldn’t have dared…”
“What? Kiss me?” She goaded him. That’s not what she wanted him to say. They said he cared for her more than he wanted to admit.
“No! I don’t. Tell me.”
“I won’t Kia… my…”
“Don’t you dare give me a title!”
“But you’re owed one.”
“No. I’m Kiaya just a slave here. And you’re the Captain of the Minister’s guard.”
“You’re the Minister’s daughter Kiaya. Even just that means I can’t…
“No. I’m the one reaching where I shouldn’t. Not you. You’re better than me… You’re a solider and I’m a hunter. It shouldn’t… I can’t.”
He gathered her in his arms even as she tried to get away from him. He was too strong for her to resist and though it was unyielding, his hold was gentle almost tender his hands securing hers that she wouldn’t hit him. She couldn’t fight it; she was still too weak. And though it took a moment for her to realise it, she was crying.
She stood in his study as she had on her second day here. Like then she looked at him. His grey eyes still seemed to pierce her; how could she have not seen before?
“Will you show me it?” He asked. She extended her left hand palm up exposing the iron star at the centre of which the pulsing quartz lay still inserted in her hand. “I wish Maxim had spoken of it earlier. I could have prepared better.”
“He didn’t know. It was just a worthless piece of jewellery. It was a chain that held it to my hand first. It’s only been like that since that day in the forest.”
“Well Romain should have told me then.”
“I can’t be sure… I don’t remember much. But I believe asked him not to. I thought I could remove it.”
“I can’t. It’s stuck.”
“It’s part of you.” She nodded. “When did you bleed on it?”
She thought about this.
“During one of my practices with the Captain. A few days before I… threatened your son.” His lips curved into a smile even as his eyes held a question. “I tried to grab the blade of the sword instead of the hilt. Cut my fingers.”
“And it had never happened before? I would imagine bleeding is a occupational hazard in your line of work.”
“No. But I hadn’t had it for long.”
“How so?” He was really surprised but moved back behind his desk.
“I found it in the forest in Clermont a couple of months before my father went to the mines. It felt familiar. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I believe I used to wear it as a kid. When that boar attacked me it must have been detached from my neck and dropped where I fell. There are things from before that I can’t remember because of that incident; I hit my head badly. They didn’t think I’d live. Like you, my parents didn’t bring me to the hospital. They had a friend who was a doctor who took care of me. I was in bed for months. That’s when my parents got me these lessons. Maybe they wanted to make sure I wasn’t going stupid because of it.”
“Well. That’s quite a coincidence. Fate has its ways.”
He remained silent for a long time until she couldn’t stand it anymore. There was no point in pretending she hadn’t heard his conversation with Lady Laila and that it wasn’t the reason she was here.
“Why did you do it?” She asked completely out of line. But he didn’t rebuke her; instead he seemed to know what she meant and to be thinking about it.
“We grew up together your mother and I. We met at school. We were best friends. Her father allowed it; I was protection for her. But she was lonely otherwise, and sheltered so she made me promise that I would be her first. She would rather be touched for the first time by someone she knew and loved.”
“She loved you?”
“Well we loved each other. We were friends.”
“What does that mean?”
“You love your siblings right?”
“But it’s not the same love you feel for Maxim.” She didn’t answer that crossing her arms in frustration. “I know. He spoke to me. Told me you heard us. Told me of the star.” He spoke to the master but not to her. What good was that?
“He shouldn’t have said nothing.”
“But he had to, you see.”
“Later. So as I was saying… Serenity and I were friends. I promised her when we were younger that our first time would be together. Some weeks before she met the man she was expected to marry we did it. She didn’t tell me she had intended to be pregnant that he wouldn’t want to wed her.”
“So you didn’t want me.”
“I didn’t expect you. That’s different.”
“So what does this make me? An unwanted bastard?”
“Oh I think Serenity really wanted you Kiaya. She’d always hoped to be a mother. She just didn’t want to be married off to a man who was known to be cruel. But she couldn’t keep you. Giving you up was the hardest thing she’s… we’ve ever had to do.”
“She wasn’t sure you’d be safe. She wanted you safe, very much. So she asked me to make sure you were. I found you parents who would love you, name you and take you in without asking too many questions as to where you came from. They might even have thought I was the father abandoning a child born of adultery. That’s what I would have believed.” Well he was the father. No. She wouldn’t think that.
“So who am I?”
“The fact that the quartz responds proves you’re of royal blood. Does that make you who you are? I think you have your own idea. What these past few weeks have revealed don’t define you. You were your own person before.”
“Why did Maxim have to tell you anything about what happened or didn’t happen between us?”
“You don’t lose track do you? Well nobody failed to notice a new royal flying last month. And rumours started at the Plaza of the slave with red head that the Royal Minister bought. I think the bath master spoke out of spite and to show the king he is more faithful than I am. So the King wants to meet you.”
“Well he wants to meet the slave who looks so much like his daughter.”
“No one knows if I look like her or no.”
“I do. You do. He will recognize you.”
“And will he kill me?”
“I don’t think so. He’s changed. He’s older and his son hasn’t had children.”
“Wait! What? No.” She couldn’t keep the panic in her voice.
“I’m not going to be his heir or something. No way.” He laughed.
“No. No. The king’s sister had four kids who also had children. Technically they’re your cousins. The oldest of the generation always becomes king or queen. Now, your cousin Melisande will be crowned. She is three years older than you.”
“Good cause I don’t want to be a royal.”
“Ah but you won’t have a choice.”
“Of course I have a choice. I can go away. It’s not like they know me yet.” He raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”
“You think they will let you?”
“You call them my cousins but they’re not. I have a family. My family. I want to go back to them. If I don’t who will take care of them? Who will pay their debt? My siblings are too young. And I won’t allow my sister to serve at the baths. No.” She looked away tears in her eyes as she whispered. “And I don’t belong here.” She would rather die than admit she had found more than she bargained for.
“But you will.”
“Of course I won’t.” She faced him, now angry too. Hurt and betrayed. “I can barely read and write. I have no education but that one needs to survive in a world of thieves and savages. I’m a hunter not a noble born. You all kid yourselves if you think I will ever be anything but a dark spot on their immaculate life.”
“I’m sorry, my Lord.” She could hear the sulk in her tone. But she was right. He must know she was right.
“I understand your world’s been turned upside down.”
“No. You don’t… my Lord.”
“Listen to me Kiaya.” She flinched at his tone reminded of her place. Or was it her place? She was confused. Where did she belong? But he continued in a gentler voice. “I’m not saying I understand what you’re feeling. I’m sure I can’t even begin to imagine. You came here to pay your parents’ debt and you discover… this. Not exactly in the way I would have planned.”
“You’ve known since the start,” she whispered interrupting him again. “You told… the captain. Did you think I wouldn’t learn?”
“If you’re asking if I told him in the hope he would share. The answer is absolutely not. Never. I trust Maxim and I knew he wouldn’t tell you anything. It was my truth to tell. You’ll also remember what I told you on your first day; I wouldn’t trust a man with my daughters that I didn’t know.” She did remember that. “Maxim has taught Amelia and Meryl how to handle weapons since they were children. He was the obvious choice to teach you how to use guns and sword. But I didn’t expect him… I guess I should have known. After all the king trusted me.”
“We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I know. I know. You’ve both shown a loyalty I’m not sure I deserve.”
“It’s not loyalty.” He looked sharply at her. “Not me. The Captain would die before he betrayed you.” Could he even begin to understand how hurtful it was that Maxim would rather obey him than let himself like her? “Me? You have power of life and death over me. That puts a measure of fear in someone.”
He laughed. “You spoke true when you said you wouldn’t lie.”
“I told you I wasn’t sure I was going to be a good slave.” She knew she was pushing but she couldn’t help herself.
“Is that really how you’ve felt here?” He asked. And for the first time there was something like sorrow or hurt in his eyes.
“It’s what I am.” She pleaded. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew she was holding too tight, in the same way she held that sword terrified that one might take it away from her. She wasn’t sure she could live if they took away all the certainties.
“It doesn’t have to be.” He moved from behind the desk and she stepped back.
“Don’t. Please.” She couldn’t bear it if he embraced her as a father might.
“Does it frighten you so?” She nodded incapable to speak. “I’m sorry. Truly I am.”
“Let me go.”
“I can’t.” He sounded genuinely sorry. “Kiaya, I would pay the rest of your debt and send you back to your parents. But the king knows you’re here. Doing that would be treason.”
“I could have escaped.”
“They won’t let you in the train without the proper papers. Only I can give you these. Is it what you want? I could send Maxim with you?”
“No!” Now that the offer was made she couldn’t accept it. She mustn’t hold on so tight. And she couldn’t force Maxim’s hand that way, or the Minister’s. They’d lose everything. Again his look required an answer. “It is what I want. That doesn’t mean it’s what’s right. I can’t ask you to give up everything.”
“You’re very wise for your age. I wish my…” he hesitated, “children could learn from you.” She laughed humourlessly.
“It seems I’m older than I think. By at least nine months. But now I can guess why you or my parents didn’t send me to the hospital even when I needed to go.”
He nodded. “They run DNA when you’re admitted; it’s the only way to heal you properly. They’d have known you weren’t your parents’ daughter. They’d have known you for Serenity’s child… and mine.” He added softly.
She took a deep breath. She had to let go. It was scary, terrifying even. What it meant she couldn’t even begin to understand. Yet somewhere deep inside she was curious.
“Does Princess Serenity fly in the fights now?”
“I don’t know Kiaya. I haven’t seen your mother since she entered the convent. She made a very conscious decision to do so the same way she did when she refused to know where I brought you. Incidentally, am I right in assuming you took part in the last attack?” He eventually asked.
“Yes.” She breathed. “But I can’t tell you much. It’s still blurred. I didn’t understand what was happening. I know I was there and that there were planes firing at me. I’m not even sure how I came back here. But I wasn’t hit.” She added. They’d all asked if she’d lost consciousness and that was the one thing she was sure didn’t happen until Maxim held her in his arms. She fought the tears that threatened again. Admitting to being there meant she couldn’t have him and it hurt more deeply than she knew she could hurt. More than being wounded as she’d been.
“No probably not. But the royals learn to fly from a young age. Your body wasn’t prepared for the violence of the confrontation, nor the velocity at which the armour carried you. That explains why Romain wondered if you were ejected from a vehicle at full speed.”
“What will you tell him?” She had just thought of something.
“About you?” Yes. “The truth I guess.”
“You’ll be in trouble.”
“Kiaya whether I tell him or not, once he’s met you he will want all DNA tests run as fast as possible. He will know what I did. I can only ask you to refrain from telling him that I knew who you were from the moment I laid my eyes on you.”
“I’m not a very good liar.”
“No I guess you aren’t. But you did lie to me about what happened with Gregory.”
“I didn’t.” He smiled in a way that said he knew. “Not really,” she amended. “Did the captain tell you?”
“No, Maxim didn’t say anything.” She was shocked. “Yes he cares for you more than you seem to think Kiaya. No, it was Gregory who told me. It seems my son has finally learned the one thing we have all failed to teach him. Take responsibility for his actions. And show some humility. We owe you that.”
“I think you owe that to the whip sir.” That caused him to smile sadly.
“Yes, maybe that too. You don’t seem to resent either of us for it.” She shrugged.
“I knew what I was doing sir. I told you on my first day that lying meant the belt at home. I knew I’m a poor liar; the fact that you chose the whip told me you were perfectly aware of what happened. But I didn’t lie when I said I wanted to teach your son a lesson; it seems he learned a few of his own. He’s not a bad man; he’s only terrified that he won’t be as good a man as you are.”
“You know Kiaya, you read people fairly well.”
“No. If I did I would have known a long time ago what secret you and the Captain held. But Gregory was easy to read. It must be difficult to be your son my Lord.”
“You will have to stop calling me my Lord Kiaya. I am not expecting you to call me ‘father’. I don’t think I’m ready for it anymore than you are but…”
“No,” She said afraid once more. “My Lord is the right title for you. Slave or no. They all refer to you that way; I know. I heard them the night of the reception. They said ‘my Lord’ or ‘Comte de Pierrefonds’. Give me time, please.”
“You will need to tell your children too my Lord. They should hear it from you not from the nobility gossip. It will hurt them.”
“I know. I think they will hate me for it a little.”
“Or not. I think they will love you the more because you will be a little less perfect.”
“A hard man to be the child of?” She nodded. “Do you want to be there when I tell them?”
“I don’t know.” The truth was that she would rather not. It would be easier to remain detached but it wasn’t really her choice and she would have to face them anyway.
“I’ll speak with Laila, she’ll know better how to handle this. The king will call at the manor in four days. That will give Felis and Pearl the chance to make something appropriate for you.”
“What’s wrong with my clothes?”
“Nothing Kiaya. But they’re not the type of garments you can wear when you meet the King. Also I know you want to go outside now that you’re better but there will be a number of people who come just to try and get a glimpse of you so if you do, please ensure to wear a cap on your head.”
“Will he train me if I asked?” He looked at her understanding and compassion filling his eyes once more. It was childish but she wasn’t ready to let go.
“I can’t answer for him Kiaya. I think yes, but not necessarily for the reason you’d like. Whatever he feels for you, Maxim has always held honour in the highest regard. He might think it disgraceful to betray my trust and now that of the king. He would never in a million years have done what I did. He must despise me.”
She couldn’t answer that, not for certain, just like the Comte couldn’t answer her question.
“It seems you and I are condemned to wonder what Captain Maxim feels. He’s not one who tells or shows much about what’s in his heart.”
“No, indeed he is not. And yet as I understand it, he kissed you. Despite his misgivings, despite his loyalty he did.”
That afternoon Lady Laila asked her to join them in the small boudoir where she, the Comte and the three children were seating. They were surprised that she should be invited but the Minister explained to them what happened twenty years before. Gregory frowned and seemed to be thinking about this quite seriously his face showing some understanding as his eyes darted between his father and her. Meryl and Amelia found the entire thing absolutely romantic and worth making a story out of, which appeared to despair their mother. Lady Laila seemed to be taking this quite well too though Kiaya couldn’t understand why. Then again, if the Lady had feared that her husband was attracted to her, it might be that the fact she was his daughter reassured her. She had known that he slept with the princess from the first night they lived together.
“Now girls, there can’t be any gossip. So I don’t want to hear you mention anything to the staff or anyone else. It will be the king’s decision to reveal Kiaya’s existence. It’s not our place to do so.” They both nodded dutifully.
“So she’s our sister.” Gregory eventually said and turned to her his eyes clouded with something that resembled anger. “Did you know?”
“Not until today sir.”
“It’s Gregory then I guess. And you’re the oldest.”
“No. No.” She replied, as she understood the anger in his gaze. “I’m not here to take anything away from you sir.” She hadn’t thought of that. But maybe she should have.
“Gregory,” his father said. “I will not claim Kiaya for my own. She doesn’t want it anyway.”
“But she is ours father,” Gregory answered. “You can’t deny it. What if the king doesn’t let you ignore this?”
“The king knows that children born out of marriage can’t be considered for a noble’s inheritance. You know very well that the royals have extramarital relations. Mostly the men,” He added quite pointedly making his son look away. So Gregory had slept with one of the royal princesses, “but that’s why we have protectors.”
“Who cares about the inheritance,” Amelia interrupted quite petulantly, “can we help her prepare for the king’s visit?”
“You just want to play dolls,” Meryl replied with a smile. “And I’d like to have the hunt before she leaves. It’d be nice.”
“I’m not gone yet. I still owe a debt. I intend to pay it in full. So you’ll have the chance for a hunt. Several I think.”
“But you’re our sister. You can’t have a debt to pay.” Amelia said.
“I do. It doesn’t go away because of this. I can’t leave my family without help.”
“But if you’re no longer their daughter, the fees aren’t as high.”
“Amelia,” Lady Laila interrupted before she spoke, “Kiaya’s known only this family for 20 years. They are her family; you can’t ask her to forget them like that. What if tomorrow you were told you couldn’t call Meryl your sister or me your mother?”
She seemed to be thinking about it. “Fine. I still want to help you prepare for the king’s visit.”
“If you want Miss.”
“Maybe you’ll have to dance.” She laughed softly. “I’ll teach you. I’ll make sure you don’t get a headache.”
All in all they took the news a lot better than she had. It seemed so easy for them to accept someone else in their house. Even Gregory seemed to have been won despite the doubt on his inheritance. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it. They all stood and the girls rushed out to their lessons of the afternoon. As he left Gregory turned.
“How did Maxim take the news?” His mother gasped and she knew then that he had learned a lot more than she’d given him credit for. She smiled to him though there was no denying the sorrow in her heart.
“You’ve learned well.”
“I’ve had a good teacher.” He shrugged with a smile of his own. “I look forward to that hunt Kiaya.”
“You’ll do well I’m sure. You found me.”
“It wasn’t me.” With that he left. She faced the Minister.
“Well. He doesn’t need the hunt. If he could read that, I’d say he’s ready.”
“Let’s take care of you Kiaya. It will take two days to give you some basic lessons in etiquette.” Lady Laila said thankfully not continuing that conversation. “And we need to do something about your fingers and nails. They’re despicable.”
She looked down: she’d known since the beginning that her hands weren’t as soft as they should be.
“Yes, my Lady.”
“I’ll leave you to it then,” Lord Pierrefonds said.